Conservationists have expressed “huge disappointment” after the government of Botswana’s said it would consider lifting a ban on hunting elephants and turning culled beasts into meat.
The recommendations were made in a report presented to president Mokgweetsi Masisi late on Thursday.
Botswana has around 130,000 elephants, the largest population in the world, and has long been hailed as a safe refuge for the species amid an Africa-wide poaching crisis.
But some Botswanan MPs argue the population is out of control and presents a danger to the lives and livelihoods of small scale farmers.
Mr Masisi ordered a committee to review the 2014 ban on hunting introduced by his predecessor, Ian Khama, when he came to power last year.
The committee’s report, which was presented to Mr Masisi on Thursday, says hunting would boost tourism while “managing’ the national elephant population. It also called for “regular but limited” elephant culling. It suggested meat from culled animals could be canned for pet food.
“We recommend … a legal framework that will enable the growth of a safari hunting industry and manage the country’s elephant population within the historic range,” said Frans Van Der Westhuizen, who chaired the committee.
President Masisi said he would present the report to his cabinet before making a decision. . “A white paper will follow and it will be shared with the public,” he told the BBC.
The decision comes amid growing tensions between Mr Masisi and Mr Khama, who stepped down last year.
Mr Masisi has pursued several policies seen as dismantling his predecessor’s legacy.
Mr Khama, a champion of conservation, publicly criticised Mr Masisi for disarming wildlife rangers last year after conservationists said they had found evidence of a surge of elephant poaching.
The Botswanan government has denied poaching is on the increase in the country.
Charlie Mayhew, CEO of Tusk, the Duke of Cambridge’s conservation charity, said Botswana’s decision to review the hunting ban “a huge disappointment.”
“It flies in the face of international efforts, including their own leadership of the Elephant Protections Initiative, to protect so many other populations that have been decimated by poaching across Africa,” he said.
“I am sure many people and visitors to Botswana will be horrified.”
Conservationists are divided on the justification for big game hunting, however.
While some say it contributes to species loss, others argue it creates an economic incentive for rural populations to protect their local wildlife from poachers.
Elephants have few natural predators to control their numbers.
An elephant conservationist who works with the Botswanan government called the suggested cull and hunting “short sighted”.
“Botswana does have too many elephants, and there is huge elephant human conflict,” said the conservationist, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“But this is not economically viable and it doesn’t take into account the reputational damage to the country. Better exploitation of sustainable tourism is a far better model.”
The announcement came as Zambia’s government said it would push ahead with a controversial cull of hippos on the Luangwa river.
Tourism Permanent Secretary Howard Sikwela told Reuters that the cull would begin when the hunting season opens in May.
Zambia says its population of 12,200 hippos is unsustainable given the water levels of the river and that they present an anthrax risk.
It wants to kill up to 2000 of the animals over the next five years, despite opposition from environmentalists.
Howard Jones, CEO of the Born Free Foundation, called the decision to go ahead with the cull “extraordinary, perverse and grotesque.”